What a great trip! Iceland is a fantastic little country to visit. This web page should be titled "If you don't like waterfalls, you are in the wrong country!". Beautiful scenery, great walking in cool weather, nice people, what else is there?!
We started planning this holiday in January for a June/July timeframe. Not as far in advance as we normally do. We quickly settled on a package that included lodging and rental car from the Nordic Visitors Travel Company. We added several extra nights at various places around the country where we wanted to spend more time (18 total nights: 2 in Reykjavik and 16 around the country). Not having to find a place to stay each night was good, as Iceland gets crowded during the summer months.
The weather was about as good as we expected. Cloudy most days with some periods of sun, a few really good days, and only a couple days that were rainy most of the time. But what does one expect from an island in the high North Atlantic! The Arctic Circle passes just to the North of Iceland. See the map below for Iceland's location. Summer days are loooonng! You could hike 7x24 if desired, without a headlamp or flashlight! The sun set around midnight for two or three hours, just revolving beneath the horizon. It never got dark. You just have to plan on getting some sleep on a regular schedule! Luckily most of the lodgings had heavy curtains to block out most of the light.
Iceland has a population of roughly 338,000 people. Reykjavik and suburbs account for 216,000 leaving 100,000+ for the rest of the country. The area is 39,769 square miles, only 1/3 the size of New Mexico. Volcanism/Tectonic Plates govern Iceland. Many volcanos are considered active and one does erupt every few years. Most will remember the Eyjafjallajokull Volcano eruption in 2010 that closed down European air travel for a while. Renewable energy provides almost 100% of their electricity: 73% hydropower/27% geothermal power. 87% of its demand for hot water and heat is provide by geothermal energy.
Iceland is definitely expensive! We brought a lot of snacks (energy bars, jerky, cracker packs, etc) and ate in our room a few times (ham/cheese/bread/etc from the grocery). We had cocktail hour before going to dinner. Liquor is only sold in state-run stores called Vinbudins. Most towns had one, but the hours for some could be incredibly short (e.g. only from 2pm to 4pm, closed on weekends). So plan ahead! Credit cards rule. We did NOT exchange a single dollar for kroner. The only times we could have used a few kroner coins was for restrooms. By the way, some restrooms took credit cards! Everybody speaks English, which is good since Icelandic is unpronounceable.
We circled the entire country on the Ring Road, with lots of side trips and detours. The Ring Road itself is 800-900 miles long, but we managed to put almost 1,900 miles on our small Hyundai Tucson 4x4. The driving was 17 days, so the average distance was about 110 miles per day. Major side trips included the Golden Circle, Borgarfjordur in the East Fjords, Dettifoss/Asbyrgi from Myvatn, the Trollaskagi Peninsula, a whole six nights in the West Fjords/Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Our complete driving route is in blue below.
The Ring Road is the main highway that circles the country, in the neighborhood of 1,332 kilometers (828 miles) long. The vast majority is paved, but it is narrow for a two lane: no shoulders, with yellow posts every 10-20 meters to remind you of the edge. You need to pay attention when a big truck or bus is coming from the opposite direction! Many highways are still gravel, especially in the Westfjords.
There are lots of one lane bridges, even on the Ring Road. They are first come, first served. It works because traffic is so light you rarely had to yield.
Then there are several long one lane tunnels in the far North. Very exciting, especially the first time navigating one. One direction always has to yield, which always seemed to be our direction. There are "M" ("Meet") wideouts every 150-200 meters to allow the yielder to pull over. You play chicken watching the oncoming headlights, trying to guess if you can make the next "M" in time to pull over! Again, this system works because of the light traffic.
Speed limits are 90kph (56mph) for paved roads and 80kph (50mph) for gravel roads (we rarely achieved that 80kph on the gravel!). Gas stations are in most towns and mostly self service. This meant you HAD to have a chip and pin credit card, not chip and signature which most US credit cards are.
Day One: Arrival and Reykjavik
We flew American from Albuquerque to DFW, then overnight to Keflavik Airport arriving around 9am. Iceland is six hours ahead of Mountain Daylight Time. We picked up a bunch of wine at Duty Free, a tip we picked up from a blog for lower prices! Our included private transfer was waiting for the 45 minute ride to Reykjavik.
We spent most of the rest of the day walking around the capital's streets and neighborhoods. Reykavik is a fun, quirky little city! Everybody was out and about, enjoying the nice cool weather. Lots of interesting architecture and "paint jobs". Found a pub for happy hour, another blog tip for getting half price drinks to combat extremely high prices!
Day Two: The Golden Circle
Our first road day was a side trip off the Ring Road called "The Golden Circle ", a popular day trip from Reykjavik. Thingvellir Park is the place where the North American and Eurasion tectonic plates meet. No wonder Iceland rock and rolls! The Haukadalur Geothermal area is home to the one and only Geysir, from which all other geysers are named after. While Geysir is not very active anymore, the adjacent Strokkur geyser has a short eruption every 4 to 10 minutes. The Gulfoss Waterfall (redundant since "foss" is waterfall in Icelandic) is huge, misty and fantastically shaped. There are a lot of people on this route due to the proximity to Reykjavik.
Our first night out in the country was at the remote Sel Guesthouse. We had reserved the three course mean ahead of time (no close restaurants!) and it was outstanding.
Day Three: The Southwest
Finishing the Golden Circle, we visited the Kerid Crater, walking around the rim and down to the beautiful lake in the middle.
Then on to some waterfalls of the Southwest. Urridafoss was next. It is a low, wide cascade, not tall, but probably prettier due to its scenic look. Off on a gravel road was Gluggafoss, a multi-tiered waterfall. The scenery and purple lupine along the drive was fantastic.
Next was one of Iceland's iconic waterfalls, Seljalands foss. It is along a volcanic ridge with three other waterfall adjacent. Very high at 60 meters and you can walk behind it! But be prepared to get wet from the mist.
That was supposed to be the end of the day, but the weather was too good to stop! Plus darkness was not a problem. So on to the most powerful waterfall in the South, Skogafoss. Lots of good rainbows in the mist. We hiked about 5 miles round trip up the canyon on the well known Fimmvorduhals Trail (it goes on and on) with a new waterfall every 10 or 15 minutes! This was one gorgeous hike!
We called it a day and backtracked to our good looking rural Hotel Anna, with a beautiful backdrop of mountains. Encountered our first Icelandic horses, smaller with thick manes and tails.
Day Four: The South to Kirkjubaerjarklaustur
This morning was our first hot spring experience. Seljavallalaug is a short walk up a beautiful canyon. The facilities were built in the early 1900's. The water was warm, not hot, but very relaxing with the mountain views. As you can imagine, there are geothermal springs everywhere in the country and most small towns have their own geothermally heated public swimming pools.
Kvernufoss, 30 meters tall, was a short walk into a gorgeous canyon, another waterfall to walk behind. This was the first of many canyons in Iceland with black volcanic rock and bright green moss and grass.
Today was one of the mostly rainy days. We visited the bird cliffs of Dyrholaey and black sand beach at Reynisfjara in the rain. Views would have been better without the low clouds! But the black volcanic basalt columns and sea stacks were still very scenic.
Tired of the rain, we dropped in at the Smidjan Brugghus (brewery) in the town of Vik for libations and appetizer while watching a World Cup soccer game.We passed a lot of moss-covered lava fields on the way to Fjadrargljufur Canyon (say that 10 times fast...), another darkly beautiful canyon. The walk was along the canyon rim.
This night was in a large Icelandic Air hotel in the middle of Kirkjubaerjarklaustur town. The locals shorten it to "klaustur" since it is hard for them to pronounce!
Day Five: Last of the South to the Southeast
We visited Foss-a-Sidu and Dverghamrar (volcanic basalt columns) on the way to the main goal for today: Skaftafell National Park. Today might be called "Glacier Day" because we saw so many!
Our hike included views of Iceland's highest mountain, Hvannadalshnjukur at almost 7,000 feet, and the Svartifoss waterfall. The cascade itself is nice, but it is the unique location in a cove of volcanic basalt columns and formations that makes it so special.
We visited the glacier tongue and lagoon of Svinafellsjokull ("jokull"=glacier), the closest we got to a glacier. The lagoon was a nice "chocolate milk" color! Of course, the purple lupine was all around.
Stopped in at our first Turf Church in Hof. There are several of these old style churches in Iceland.
Last big stop was at Jokulsarlon, a famous glacial lagoon full of icebergs from tidewater glaciers. These icebergs eventually make their way down the channel to the ocean. Some ice washes back up on the black sand "Diamond Beach". Jokulsarlon is where we encountered our first nesting Arctic Terns. Be careful, they attack!
This night was at another large chain hotel, Fosshotel Vatnsjokull. It might have been big, but it was still out in the middle of nowhere!
Glaciers and Icebergs
Day 6: Southeast to East
Lots of beautiful coastal views today as we headed for the East Fjords. The Stokknes Peninsula was very striking. The Lighthouse was a bright orange, the first of several we encountered.
Then there was one of our first sightings of swans! A whole flock of them! After that, we saw swans in all parts of Iceland, even in the desolate "deserts".
We shortened the Ring Road drive today by taking the Oxipass bypass, a gravel road across a high pass. Of course, several waterfalls were discovered, which had to be explored! And we "ran" into some sheep that would NOT get off the road! One of those roads hazards you had to watch out for.
Hengifoss was the major waterfall today, a 3 mile round trip hike up the mountain. It had been cloudy all day and started to rain just as we started uphill! The striking feature of this cascade was the black and red volcanic layers in the cliff, which unfortunately did not look as good in the rain and mist.
We arrived in Seydisfjordur for a two night stay at the Vid Lonid Guesthouse. This was the cutest town we visited. The weather was clearing (it was very windy) and town was very picturesque.
Day 7: East Fjords and Borgarfjordur Eystri
Today was a great day trip to a remote fjord area, Borgarfjordur Eystri. The weather started out mostly clear and stayed at least partly sunny all day!
The drive out of Seydisfjordur passed many waterfalls, so all the stops and exploration slowed down our progress. Then a lot of mixed paved and gravel roads to the coast, with views to match.
Our first hike was called Storud, up into the coastal mountains. We had originally planned this for a full day hike, but with the later arrival around 12 noon, just did a several mile out and back. We still got the gorgeous mountain scenery views!
Then on to Hafnarholmi, the harbor for the town of Bakkagerdi, renowned for it's bird reserve. Puffins everywhere! They are quite funny looking little birds with their colorful striped beaks.
On the way back we stopped for another hike, this one along the estuary coastline to a black sand beach on the North Atlantic. A much easier hike, though we got a bit off trail at one point in the thick vegetation.
Day Eight: From Seydisfjordur to Myvatn in the North
Moving on to the North of Iceland. We stopped and hiked up to one last waterfall on the way out of Seydisfjordur, Fardagafoss, then a second along the Ring Road. The drive across the Northwest highlands was very remote and desolate, very much a desert. And it was windy! Herdubreid was an extremely picturesque and oddly shaped mountain.
Myvatn is a lake surrounded by volcanic activity and formations. We visited a couple this afternoon: Viti Crater, with a lake inside, and Leirhnjukur, with steaming fumaroles and lava formations. We had planned to walk the rim around the Viti Crater, but the gale force winds changed our minds! There was also a large geothermal power plant with huge pipes spread all around, tapping the heat and hot water.
We arrived at the Fosshotel Myvatn for a three night stay. A very nice hotel with views across Myvatn Lake. Actually that is redundant, since "vatn" is lake in Icelandic.
Day Nine: Looping around Myvatn Lake
Today was a lot of short walks to see the sights while circling Myvatn. First was Dimmuborgir, an area of fantastic lava formation, arches and windows. There were paved paths and also more remote dirt paths directly across the lava. Then on to Hofdi and Kalfastrond for more lava formations right on the lake. We also saw a lot of birds, mostly duck species, at Kalfastrond.
We had a longer loop walk around the Skutustadadigar Pseudo-Craters, seeing many more birds. Pseudo-Craters are not real volcanic craters, but are formed when hot lava flows over land and the resulting huge steam explosions create what looks like real craters. Very picturesque in any case!
Then we visited a real crater, Hverfell, and walked up to the top and along the rim a ways. The crater had a smaller cone in the middle. Great view of the Myvatn area. Last stop of the day was another geothermal area, Hverir. The ground was warm, so stay on the paths! Lots of boiling mud pits and pools, steaming fumaroles, etc.
Hverir Geothermal Area - Boiling Pools and Mud Pots, Steaming Fumaroles
Day 10: Waterfalls and Asbyrgi
Today was a loop Northeast of Myvatn on mostly gravel roads (with some very pot-holey sections) to see some large waterfalls and more (of course) volcanic lava formations.
Dettifoss is supposedly the largest waterfall in Europe in water volume. It does throw up a lot of spray! And you can walk right up to the drop off, so don't get too close... Selfoss is just upstream from Dettifoss and much different. Not as tall but much much wider, very interesting. Then a mile downsteam is Hafragilsfoss. While you can't get very close to Hafragilsfoss, the canyon setting is beautiful.
At the far end of the loop was Asbyrgi, a horseshoe shaped canyon with basalt columns. While not that exciting, the Botntjorn pond at the end was interesting with those unique canyon walls.
We had two hikes on the back side of the loop while heading back towards Myvatn. Hljodaklettar had large knobby lava formations and a cave, that had intricate designs when closely inspected. Holmatungur was an easy walk among flower fields to a pretty cascade called Holmafossar.
Our final stop was to visit the West side of Dettifoss. This side was the spray and mist side, everybody wearing their rain gear! Then back to the Fosshotel Myvatn.
Day Eleven: To the Northwest and Trollaskagi Peninsula
Another iconic waterfall first thing today, Godafoss. We visited both side and could get real close!
After the large town of Akureyri, we took a detour off the Ring Road to travel the Trollaskagi Peninsula, known for its views and small towns situated on deep fjords with high mountains. The Svarfadardalur Nature Reserve was out first stop, near Dalvik. We did a loop hike in the luscious fields of yellow wildflowers (should have been wearing our boots instead of sneakers; a bit marshy in places), spying lots of birds and more Icelandic horses.
The most fun was those long one lane tunnels! This is where we encountered three of them, always having to yield to the other direction. Nice that traffic is light!
Siglufjordur was a cute town at the north end of the peninsula. We wandered all around the harbor and "downtown" neighborhood, enjoying ice creams from the local market. Visited the small town of Hofsos to see their "Infinity" pool overlooking the fjord. Then the cathedral at Holar, arriving right after it closed for the day...
Our one night accommodation was at the Hofsstadir Guesthouse, a larger affair but still out in the middle of nowhere. So we had a good dinner in their restaurant.
A good a place as any! Here is a video of several of the largest waterfalls. Lots of water power and sound! And a lot of mist!
Day Twelve: To the Westfjords
We started off with an early morning visit to Reykjafoss and the nearby Fosslaug hot springs pool. The multi-tiered waterfall was gorgeous and we were the only people at the pool! That really surprised us. Beautiful setting relaxing in the warm water. We did encounter people on the 15 minute walk back to the car park.
Stopped by another turf church at Vidimyrarkirkja, then on to the spectacular Kolugljufur Canyon. Beautiful waterfalls amidst the black lava and green moss of the canyon.
We left the Ring Road for a six day detour of the West Fjords and Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Today had more driving than usual, driving up and down and around a lot of fjords! Definitely not like the crow flies! Long cascades coming down the steep mountains everywhere.
Our one night accommodation was the Malarhorn Guesthouse in the small town of Drangsnes. We enjoyed walking along the breakwater birding. In the morning, we had Icelandic-style donuts!
Day Thirteen: Along the Westfjords to Isafjordur
Our first stop was a lovely small church on a local farm. It had a well known alter piece. The farm sheep dogs came over to give us a welcome!
After crossing the highlands, it was another in and out drive around many fjords. We visited a small turf house that have been converted to a cafe and a nearby seal colony with lots of attendant birds. There were waterfalls along the way of course!
Our main walk of the day was a three mile out and back to Valagil canyon and its high waterfall, which you could not see until you got right up in the canyon. The big waterfalls you could see up the valley during the hike were NOT the destination!
We arrived in Isafjordur, biggest town in the Westfjords, for a two night stay at Hotel Horn. The registration desk was at the Hotel Isafjordur a couple of blocks away. The town itself had a big harbor (cruise ships call in but none while we were there thank goodness) and some nice architecture.
Day Fourteen: Vigur Island Tour
The main item today was the boat tour to the bird island of Vigur, our only pay-for tour of the trip. We did have time to sandwich some other activities around the tour.
In the morning we hiked up to and above Bunarfoss in the nearby Tungudalur valley. The map showed a trail going above the waterfall, but we had a hard time following it. Bushwhacking through the low birch was tough! We finally climbed up the rocks next to the water. It was a bit steep and loose but better than the birch!
The boat ride and island walking tour was 3+ hours long. Very nice coastal views on the ride both ways. Saw lots of birds: eider ducks, puffins (not close), black guillemots, arctic terns and even another seal colony. The arctic terns were numerous and nesting, so there was constant harassment in those areas. They gave us sticks with small flags to wave over our heads and the sticks were definitely required! "Light" refreshments were included at the end: coffee, tea, rhubarb bread pudding, rhubarb pie, rhubarb cake, chocolate cake, etc etc. Not light!
Back in Isafjordur after the tour, we drove up a steep gravel road to the top of Bolafjall for gorgeous fjord views and over to another bird cliff full of nesting Black-legged Kittiwakes. We can't get enough of the birds.
The Horn Hotel elevator!
A special mention of the Hotel Horn elevator! We had not encountered this "open" concept before. The elevator consisted of a floor and a half-height console on one wall. No ceiling and nothing on the other three walls. Look up and you see the doors for the second and third floors. You had to hold the buttons continually or the elevator would stop where ever. Another interesting experience, especially that first time...
Day Fifteen: Myrarfell, Dynjandi and Latrabjarg
Myrarfell was an early morning hike of about 3 miles and 1000 vertical, our only "peak" hike of the trip. It was an easy walk up to a nice narrow ridge line on the top. Lots of black lava rock and green moss. Beautiful views across Dyrafjordur.
Today was a mostly rainy/cloudy day. Most of the Westfjords highways were gravel, so the vehicle got extremely dirty! Slowed us down a bit too, not getting anywhere near the 80kph max speed.
You could see Dynjandi across the fjord in the distance. It is the biggest waterfall in the Westfjords, a fantastic multi-tiered "fantail" shape. Plus there are several named waterfalls below it. It was rainy and windy making photography somewhat challenging! Even Stef holding the umbrella didn't help much!
Not getting enough dirt roads for the day, we continued past our town for the night, Patreksfjordur, to visit the bird cliffs at Latrabjarg. This peninsula is the western most part of Iceland. And the cliffs delivered on the birds! Puffins frequented the tops of the vertical cliffs, up close and personal. The cliffs were also covered by thousands of birds, including our only encounter with Razorbills. We could have walked miles along the cliff edge as the cliffs got taller and taller.
Then back to Hotel West in Patreksfjordur for our one night stay.
Panorama over Dyrafjordur from Myrarfell
Day Sixteen: Crossing over to the West and Snaefellsnes Peninsula
Today was mostly a travel day. We had time for one side trip in the Westfjords before taking the ferry to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Raudisandur is a large reddish colored beach, obviously with nice coastal views. We did a short walk in the sand, but a lot of beach walking can be very tiring! The campground was representative of many we saw in Iceland: large open areas with no trees and no facilities, no marked sites (though restroom blocks were usually provided).
We caught the 12:15pm car ferry across Breidafjordur to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Stef had to walk on as all passengers did, while the drivers drove on. They placed the cars so close you couldn't get in and out after the loading process! It was a calm scenic ride across the bay, passing many islands and several lighthouses. We leisurely ate our snack lunch, while going topside many times for photos and views.
We arrived at the town of Stykkisholmur after 3pm. We immediately drove along the north side of the peninsula to Grundarfoss, where Stef got to pet some friendly horses. Then on to one of Iceland's most iconic locations: Kirkjufell and Kirkjufoss. The mountain over the waterfall was very picturesque, though we didn't get the best postcard images due to the cloudy and misty conditions.
We had time for two more stops on the way to our accommodations: Berserkjahraun was a nice gravel road through a fantastic lava field with moss covered black lava and red volcanic cones, then a stop for a short walk above Selvallavatn and it's pretty waterfall.
We arrived late at the Hotel Rkujandi for a two night stay. No town, just an intersection of two highways!
Day Seventeen: Around the West End of Snaefellsnes
Today was a busy loop drive around the Snaefellsnes Peninsula on mostly paved roads. Yea! The Snaefellsjokull icecap/mountain was in view all day. You might recognize the name, which was immortalized by Jules Verne as the volcano entrance for "Journey to the Center of the Earth".
We visited the Ytri Tunga beach seal colony, which also had a lot of birds. Then a short walk up to Bjarnarfoss, just another big high waterfall! Next was the "Black Church" at Buda, with a gorgeous scenic backdrop. The Raudfeldargja Canyon was close by, a very narrow slot canyon that had a stream coming out of it. You could only go in a short way, trying to avoid getting too wet. Stef was showing off holding up the snowbank!
The Anarstapi to Hellnar coastal walk was our longer walk of the day: about 5 miles out and back. A gorgeous walk in a lava field along the coast with beautiful views of water, cliffs, arches and sea stacks.
A couple of more stops as we looped around the peninsula. Londrangar had two large sea stacks and cliffs with lots of birds. Nearby was the tall lighthouse at Malariff. And finally the black sand beach (very pebbly!) and cove at Djupalonssandur and Drikvik. Another lava field walk with weird formations. Then there were the lifting stones, sized to determine one's "masculinity". Stef did attempt one of the smaller stones.
More lovely coastal views on our drive back to Hotel Rjukandi and very nice dinner in their restaurant.
Day Eighteen: Back to the Ring Road and the West, all the way to Reykjavik
Our final full day in Iceland! On the way back to the Ring Road, we stopped at the Gerduberg Cliffs (a very large row of big basalt columns), then a nice hike to and up the Eldborg Crater. The walk was across flat bushy land until going up the crater on a steep loose trail with some help in the form of chains.
Then another detour off the Ring Road to visit Glanni waterfall, the Grabok Craters (lots of stairs and boardwalks), and the Deildartunguhver Hot Springs, reputedly the largest hot springs by volume in Europe. They were definitely "boiling"! The hot water heats a lot of homes in Iceland.
Our final big waterfall was Hraunfossar, probably the most unique in Iceland. Water seeps from an underground river across a very large span of volcanic shelf. There is no above-ground water above the waterfall. Way cool and the color of the water was a bright blue/green.
Back on the Ring Road, we stopped at a free self-service car wash in Borgarnes to clean up the VERY dirty vehicle. That was after rereading the rental contract to find out we might be charged $150 for a dirty return! We had to hurry back to Reykjavik and the car rental office to get back by 5pm, arriving at exactly 5pm! That was to take advantage of the free transfer to our hotel, instead of a taxi.
But even the transfer was not without incident! Our van had an altercation with a bus in a narrow downtown street, being clipped by the bus making a tight turn. So we had to hoof it with our backpacks and rolling luggage through the streets and sidewalks to our Hotel Fron (same as the first night). Again walked the streets of Reykjavik in nice weather. Lots of people were out and about. We had a nice dinner at Icelandic Fish and Chips (NOT British style) before returning to the hotel.
Day Nineteen: Return to USA
We had an 8am private transfer to the Keflavik airport, on time, for our 11am American flight back to DFW. No problems at all getting back to ABQ, arriving around 6pm. Time enough to pick up the mutt from the kennel, hit Trader Joe's, and relax a bit at home!
A great trip! A bit tiring due to all the driving, but well worth it. We never got tired of the scenery or waterfalls. Eighteen nights and we still didn't see everything we wanted to. If we ever go back, we will plan it on our own. Making lodging and car reservations are easy since credit cards and the internet rule in Iceland.